October 23, 2013 2:49pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Sony Music Sues United Airlines Over In-Flight Music
Record labels have searched left and right for copyright infringers. Now they are looking up, too.
On Tuesday, Sony Music and various subsidiary labels brought a lawsuit against United Airlines, Inflight Productions and Rightscom over copyrighted music being made available through in-flight systems.
According to a complaint filed in New York federal court, the defendants are duplicating sound recordings and music videos, installing the allegedly infringed copies to servers located on board aircraft and then transmitting performances to passengers. All without paying any baggage fees.
Among the sound recordings at issue are works by Britney Spears, Carrie Underwood, Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson.
Before the lawsuit was filed, the record labels say they were contacted by a representative from Rightscom, a consultancy specializing in rights management issues, who explained he had been retained by the other defendants. This consultant is said to have "candidly acknowledged" that musical works were being reproduced and that "it is going to be necessary for Inflight to contact the labels individually to put the necessary licenses in place."
Discussions commenced, but the lawsuit states that during this time, United Airlines continued to offer its customers access to copyrighted music.
The tip-off appears to have triggered a deeper investigation into in-flight music and now a lawsuit.
The complaint filed by Andrew Bart at Jenner & Block also seems designed to avoid any possibility that the airline company could claim the possibility of making any statutory license.
For one thing, the in-flight music system that the airlines are running is deemed to be "interactive, on-demand," which would not be covered by a royalty collection outfit like SoundExchange.
Besides a copyright infringement claim, the record labels are also pursuing two additional claims for common-law infringement of pre-1972 works and unfair competition. Sony objects to the in-flight delivery of older music from artists like Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Santana. Claims over pre-'72 music have been a hot topic of late in courts.
Sony wants to literally stop the music with an injunction, plus is seeking airline profits and statutory damages.
A spokesperson for United has declined to comment.